Politics & Government

Bladen County election office gave special access to Dowless, former board member says

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Bladen County political operative McCrae Dowless and possibly others were provided special access to confidential information at the county’s Board of Elections office, according to affidavits disclosed as part of an investigation into North Carolina’s 9th Congressional District race.

The N.C. Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement last month refused to certify the results of the contest between Republican Mark Harris and Democrat Dan McCready because the board was investigating voting irregularities in the district, including in Bladen County. The board later identified Dowless, who worked for the Harris campaign through political consulting firm Red Dome, as a “person of interest” in the case.

Dowless and other area residents are alleged to have mishandled absentee ballots, according to affidavits previously submitted to the state elections board. The latest affidavits to be disclosed were filed on behalf of the McCready campaign by Marc Elias, a prominent Democratic attorney, and echo previous tampering allegations. The board is publicizing the affidavits and other records on an online portal.

Elias represented Gov. Roy Cooper in the aftermath of the 2016 North Carolina gubernatorial race.

The latest affidavits may offer a glimpse into Dowless’s relationship with Bladen County election officials, specifically Cynthia Shaw, the Bladen elections board director who resigned shortly after the state elections board announced its investigation.

Shaw was planning to retire at the end of the year. Rather than serve out her term, she decided to take her vacation and sick leave. Shaw told a News & Observer reporter that her early departure “has nothing to do with this investigation going on.”

Dowless and Shaw are at the center of affidavits submitted by Jens Lutz, former vice-chair of the Bladen elections board, and Ben Snyder, chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party.

Calling Dowless

On one occasion this fall, Lutz said Bladen elections staff noticed several “forged” absentee ballot request forms. The requests sought ballots for a relative of Bladen County elections board member Bobby Ludlum, as well as a relative of Shaw’s — and another for a dead person.

Lutz said he asked Shaw whether she contacted the state elections board over the forged request forms. Shaw “informed me that she had not and that she had instead contacted Mr. Dowless and talked to him about it,” Lutz reported.

Lutz, who previously served as chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party, started a now-defunct political consulting firm with Dowless in 2014. But Lutz told Wilmington-based TV station WECT that he only wanted to “figure out how he was operating.”

Earlier this month, in a statement from his lawyer, Dowless denied breaking any federal or state campaign laws. The News & Observer was unable to reach his attorney by phone Monday.

In his affidavit, Lutz describes the Bladen County elections board security as “lax” and claims there were “multiple instances” in which the actual absentee ballot totals didn’t match what the staff reported.

The allegations of lax security are similar to those of Agnes Willis, a Bladen County precinct worker who wrote in a Nov. 29 affidavit that early voting election results were “viewed by officials at the one-stop site who were not judges,” McClatchy previously reported.

Access to information

Bladen County election board staff allowed Dowless to “take and copy unredacted absentee ballot request forms, which include social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, state ID numbers, and signatures,” according to Lutz, who resigned in mid-December.

Lutz also claims in the affidavit that Dowless used public records laws to determine when voters would receive absentee ballots, “allowing Mr. Dowless to send his workers to those voters right after the ballots arrived.” Because the race of voters is included on the county reports about absentee ballot requests, “Mr. Dowless could have used it to target African American voters,” Lutz testified.

On another occasion, Lutz witnessed Dowless “pressuring Board staff to provide this information to him,” according to his affidavit.

Lutz then “confronted Mr. Dowless and told him that the Board office was closed,” Lutz reported. Dowless “responded angrily, and my fellow Board of Elections member, Mr. (Bobby) Ludlum, went outside to explain the situation, after which he left the Board of Elections.”

Destroyed ballots?

Officials with the elections board were aware of some of Dowless’ activities, according to an affidavit filed by Ben Snyder, chairman of the Bladen County Democratic Party.

Snyder says he heard Dowless was “intentionally losing voters’ absentee ballots.” His source is Ludlum, who relayed details of a conversation between Dowless and Shaw:

“While the exact language of each party is not certain, I understand the substance of this conversation was generally as follows: Dowless: ‘Well, I have added a new trick’

Shaw: ‘What is it?’

Dowless: ‘I am throwing ballots into the trash.’”

Follow more of our reporting on The North Carolina election fraud investigation

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Paul “Andy” Specht reports on North Carolina leaders and state politics for The News & Observer and PolitiFact. Specht previously covered Raleigh City Hall and town governments around the Triangle. He’s a Raleigh native who graduated from Campbell University in Buies Creek, N.C. Contact him at aspecht@newsobserver.com or (919) 829-4870.
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